UK Release Date: 11th March 2016
Runtime: 93 minutes
Director: Robert Eggers
Writer: Robert Eggers
Starring: Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie, Harvey Scrimshaw, Ellie Grainger, Lucas Dawson, Wahab Chaudhry
Synopsis: A Puritanical family, cast out of their religious community, is tormented by a malevolent superhero force as they attempt to form a new life for themselves on the edge of the woods.
The start of this year has been a bit of a dumping ground for sub-par horror movies, with the likes of The Other Side of the Door and The Forest stinking out multiplexes. You’d be forgiven, if you’d only seen the posters, for thinking that The Witch would be a similarly formulaic beast, peppered with jump scares and lazy genre tropes. Thankfully, the debut film from Robert Eggers is something entirely different – a brave, uncompromising and utterly unique tale of malevolent forces targeting a vulnerable family.
William (Ralph Ineson) and his wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) are excommunicated from their Puritan plantation in New England and form their own settlement on the edge of the woods. Eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is looking after her infant brother, when he disappears without a trace. When strange events begin to befall other members of the family, including teen Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), they become increasingly convinced that there is something evil lurking within the woods.
The Witch is certainly not a movie for the traditional horror crowd. Gore is in relatively short supply and there are only a handful of moments that could even begin to be described as jump scares. Eggers instead opts for an agonisingly slow build that subtly cranks up the tension in the background, on the way to a finale that is a bizarre combination of bleak and empowering.
Wouldst thou like to live… deliciously?
There’s something incredibly brave about how The Witch presents itself from its opening moments. Eggers avoids the temptation to dump enormous amounts of period exposition on the audience and instead relies on his sheer commitment to period detail to transport the audience into the world he has created. The film’s dialogue is delivered in 17th century English, with much of it adapted from first person accounts of witchcraft from the period. Initially, this makes the film tough to follow, but it ultimately only serves to highlight the off-kilter feel of the film as it presents a vision of devout Christianity that the story criticises and questions.
Eggers is also clear from the opening moments that he isn’t playing games with his audience. Moments after the disappearance of a baby kick-starts the family’s descent into madness and paranoia, Eggers shows the audience the eponymous hag performing an act of unspeakable evil. It’s through remarkable directorial restraint that the film never leans on this, though, and places its focus almost solely on the family and the way their beliefs impair their logic and cast suspicion on their own. The resulting film is more in line with the work of Ben Wheatley, with clear nods to the religious subtext of Carrie, than it is with the James Wan school of “cattle prod” horror.
Anya Taylor-Joy delivers nothing short of a breakout performance here, using her wide, expressive eyes as a window to a character in turmoil over her role in the world. As much as The Witch is a film about a family being tormented by the supernatural, Thomasin is a character who is experiencing the very real issues associated with coming of age as a woman in a strongly patriarchal society. When these two strands of the narrative begin to rub together, the spark it creates powers the unsettling potency of the finale. Taylor-Joy is amply supported by a delightfully gruff Ralph Ineson, Kate Dickie on unhinged form and young Harvey Scrimshaw, who takes one scene that could easily have been goofy and over-played and gives it real subtlety.
I conjure thee to speak to me.
The film is written, directed and performed with a straight face. There’s none of the sly winking that characterises a lot of modern horror cinema, which allows The Witch to remain grounded even as the more supernatural aspects of the story come into play. The serious tone gives real power to the scares when they do come and ensures that the period setting never becomes goofy or camp. The Witch is a tonal masterpiece that has layers of meaning which only reveal themselves in the days and weeks after the credits roll.
This is cerebral horror that leaves a chill in its wake.
Pop or Poop?
Robert Eggers establishes himself as a real voice to watch in the horror genre with The Witch, which combines supernatural scares with a vivid take on coming of age in a devoutly religious community. Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson shine as mother and father battling the evil forces determined to tear their family apart.
It’s short on easy jolts, but builds to a crescendo that is enough to draw a shudder from even the most hardened gorehound.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.